Bhagavad Gita: Star of Film and Stage
The ancient Sanskrit text about the art of life gives life to contemporary art.
One Monday evening, instead of poring over books, my Bhagavad Gita study group gathered around a television. We’d rented The Legend of Bagger Vance, a 2000 film starring Matt Damon and Will Smith. Bagger Vance is about golf. It’s also about the Gita.
It takes a lifetime—many lifetimes—to understand the Bhagavad Gita, or “Song of God.” The Hindu scripture has but 700 verses, many no longer than a dozen words, but its subject matter makes it a slow read. The Gita is a multilayered manual for living—the ultimate self-help book. “How do we act in a world of conflict and suffering? That’s the question that the Gita answers,” says Graham Schweig, a religious studies professor who has written an English translation and interpretation of the thousands-year-old Sanskrit text.
Many hundreds of scholars and spiritual teachers have offered interpretations of the Gita. Occasionally, an artist takes a stab at it. The text or its essence has found its way into contemporary music, literature, drama, and other creative works. The following artistic treatments can make fine points of entry for anyone new to the Gita, or provide fresh insights for the longtime student.
The Legend of Bagger Vance
The Bhagavad Gita unfolds on a battlefield, on the eve of a violent clash between two factions of a royal family. The hero is the young warrior prince Arjuna, who becomes paralyzed with doubt as he looks across the field at his estranged cousins and onetime teachers. In the ensuing conversation with his charioteer, Arjuna comes to understand the meaning of dharma, the paths of yoga, and the very purpose of life. His charioteer, not incidentally, is the supreme Hindu deity Krishna, aka Bhagavan.
The movie Bagger Vance (note the play on words) is based on a 1995 novel of the same name, set in Depression-era Georgia. The protagonist is one Rannulph Junah (R. Junah), a troubled World War I hero who reluctantly agrees to represent his native Savannah in a 36-hole showdown against the two greatest golfers of the day. On the eve of the match, he becomes paralyzed with doubt. “This whole endeavor is a freak show. A joke. What good will any of it do me, or anyone attached to it?” he says to his caddie, Bagger Vance, who responds that “life is action.”
Author Steven Pressfield has read the Gita about 10 times; several Gita translations are scattered throughout his California home. “I’ve read it multiple times partly because I’m trying to understand it, and I don’t claim that I do,” says Pressfield, a former marine and longtime screenwriter. But the lessons contained in the Gita are “touchstones” in his life. “Its concept of discipline rings a lot of bells, but also the idea that following a path—with full devotion and concentration—is a form of meditation, a form of spiritual practice. I believe that about writing. To me, it’s a spiritual practice as much as it is, say, a commercial venture.”
Composer Douglas Cuomo is better known for creating the salsa-flavored theme music to Sex and the City than for his latest project: a Gita-inspired chamber opera. That may change when Arjuna’s Dilemma reaches a wider audience. The 70-minute composition premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last November, after eight years of gestation.
Cuomo didn’t set out to write an opera about the great Sanskrit poem. He wanted to write a piece of music for Indian vocalist Amit Chatterjee. It was Chatterjee who suggested the Gita, which Cuomo had encountered in college. “When I looked at it again, I immediately knew this was the text I wanted to use because of its philosophical teachings and also because it had a lot of dramatic potential,” Cuomo says.
Arjuna’s Dilemma is a musical marriage of East and West. Arjuna is played by an American tenor who sings in Sanskrit. The role of Krishna, written for Chatterjee, calls for improvisation in raga style, an Indian idiom akin to scat singing. A four-member female chorus rounds out the vocal cast, singing almost exclusively in English. The 12 instrumentalists include a jazz saxophonist and a tabla drummer. The sound, like the Gita, transcends time and place.
“The part of the Gita that appealed to me the most is the idea of understanding the true nature of reality,” says Cuomo. “Essentially, that’s what Arjuna is looking to understand. He begs Krishna for that vision, and Krishna eventually grants him that vision, which is more wonderful than he could have imagined and more horrible than he could have imagined. The idea of seeing ‘what really is’ is such a simple idea but also such an incredibly profound idea. It’s almost an impossible goal—in a sense, it’s a flash of cosmic insight—but it’s something I think about and strive toward.”
Satyagraha and Doctor Atomic
Two legendary composers have also mined the Gita for material. Philip Glass’s opera Satyagraha is a dramatization of Mahatma Gandhi’s years in South Africa, where “the father of India” developed his strategy of passive resistance. The libretto consists of passages from the Gita, which Gandhi studied daily, and is performed in Sanskrit.
John Adams’s Doctor Atomic tells the story of a different historic figure who was deeply influenced by the Gita: J. Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist who came to be known as “the father of the atomic bomb.” Oppenheimer, who learned Sanskrit to better understand the scripture, revealed in interviews that upon witnessing the first test of an atomic bomb, he recalled the climactic scene in which Krishna reveals himself as “the destroyer of worlds.” The pertinent passage plays a part in the climax of Doctor Atomic.
The Metropolitan Opera in New York hosted both operas last year. Doctor Atomic was also staged at the English National Opera in London earlier this year. Can’t wait for a staging near you? Pick up a DVD of the Mahabharata, a three-hour screen version of a nine-hour stage production. The Mahabharata is the epic poem of which the Bhagavad Gita is a small part.
People have told me they see the Gita in The Wizard of Oz, in the Disney animated film Atlantis: The Lost Empire, and in other popular works. I can’t say if the parallels were intended. But it shouldn’t surprise anyone to find expressions of the Gita’s themes throughout the arts. If it’s about life, chances are it’s about the Gita.
The Gita in Print
First translated into English in 1785, the Bhagavad Gita has been printed in numerous editions and languages. Here are some suggestions to help you choose the right text…or start a personal Gita library. —Rolf Sovik
Clearest English Translation
• Bhagavad Gita by Graham M. Schweig
This text comes with informative chapters on the philosophy of the Gita and excels in its simple and eloquent translation.
Best Contemporary Commentaries
• The Bhagavad Gita for Daily Living (3 Vols.) by Eknath Easwaran
Easwaran’s popular and insightful everyday commentary is available in either three volumes or as a single-volume condensation.
• Perennial Psychology of the Bhagavad Gita by Swami Rama
Drawn from the inner logic of a master yogi, this version is excellent for practitioners of yoga meditation.
Traditional Philosophical Commentary
• The Bhagavad Gita with commentary of Shri Shankaracharya
Shri Shankara was the great 9th century exponent of Vedantic philosophy. His commentary is technical and unflinching in its support of non-dualism.
• An Ordinary Life Transformed by Rev. Stephanie Rutt
Rutt’s simple modern edition of the Gita sheds psychological and spiritual light on how the text might be applied in daily life.
• The Bhagavad Gita by Juan Mascaro
This lyrical text includes a marvelous introduction to the Gita’s parallels with Christian mysticism. For the Sanskrit Student.
• The Bhagavad Gita: 25th Anniversary Edition by Winthrop Sargeant
In his verse-by-verse presentation of the Gita, Sargeant shows the Devanagari script, the transliteration, a grammatical analysis of each word, and a translation.
Anna Dubrovsky is an award-winning journalist and author whose productivity has plummeted with the birth of her two children. But she always makes time for assignments that broaden her horizons. Her work has appeared in dozens of print and online publications, including The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Utne Reader, Fitnessmagazine.com, and Parents.com. She has been practicing yoga since 2001 and teaching since 2008. After much globetrotting, she now makes her home in Southern California.